Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lost round 1, are we ready for round 2 . . .

I knew I had read it earlier, but this News Tribune article reinforces what I read about our state’s chances for a Race to the Top grant. According to the governor we won’t be in the first round and we must see action by the 2010 legislature to position ourselves for round two. The comments following the article are also very interesting.

Will our legislature, given all the economic issues they face, give this initiative any real consideration? Will they, as the article suggests is needed, stand up to powerful constituent groups meaning WEA. If they do, will it result in change that positions the state for a proposal with some chance of being accepted and funded?

Though I don’t agree with the parameters or process established by this administration, it will be a shame if we do not see any of this revenue support young people and teachers in our state. We should not feel threatened by charters, we should be open to exploring new and creative ways to support teachers, we must find aditional ways to measure progress, we must understand that collaboration will be the only road to successful change that sustains over time, and above all we must find adaptive solutions to the growing list of demands that we face with dwindling resources.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Education Department knows best . . .

Add this to the interesting information on Race to the Top. I found this link to the article on Eduwonk and urge you to read the post.

In the article the President makes the following statement about state’s that have laws against linking student data to teacher evaluation.

"You cannot ignore facts," Obama said. "That is why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways."

This followed a similar statement in this New York Times article last week from the Education Secretary.

“Believe it or not,” Mr. Duncan said, “several states, including New York, Wisconsin and California, have laws that create a firewall between students and teacher data. I think that’s simply ridiculous. We need to know what is and is not working and why.”

These appear to be fighting words aimed squarely at teacher unions and specifically at those states that support the union’s beliefs as they relate to this linking. I find it unproductive to take this stand at this time. I agree with the comment from thehurt that the federal government is using funding as a vehicle to influence education decisions at the state and local level. We have always felt this as it relates to special services and Title 1; this opportunity only intensifies the pressure.

It will be difficult for states not to go after this funding opportunity given the current and short term status of public school funding. As Schwarzenegger says in the LA Times article:

"We will seek any reforms or changes to the law deemed necessary, including changes to our data system laws, to ensure California is eligible to compete" for federal funds, Schwarzenegger said in a statement. This seems like a pretty big piece to bite off given the time frame to qualify for these grants. Especially in a state with the problems they have reaching consensus on most issues.

It will not be easy, however, for all states to get the support necessary to submit successful proposals. If the unions don’t support the state’s proposals I find it difficult to believe that the feds would fund it. On the other hand, maybe they are looking at this initiative being the vehicle that results in removing significant impediments to things like charter schools. The unions are certainly perceived as an impediment by many to what some call comprehensive reform. As Scott shared in his comment to my last post, the NEA president is cautiously optimistic that common ground can be found. Good luck, the issues are too fundamental to the union’s core beliefs and there is too little time. I don't see it happening.

I don’t think this one time infusion of money will, on its own, fundamentally change public education. Forcing us to align with the administration’s answers to the public school’s problems as they define them is not the answer. Putting up road blocks in the form of conditions to be met before applying is not the answer. Treating all states and school districts the same is not the answer. Providing us with options and allowing us to demonstrate that we are engaged in comprehensive reform initiatives would have been a more productive approach to take. Allowing us an opportunity to influence their thinking would be a better approach. Coming at us like they have all the answers will not support change that will increase achievement that sustains over time.

We will place ourselves in situations that we believe will support our Classroom 10 work and the vision behind this initiative. I don’t think tying this achievement to teacher evaluation is a necessary component of this work in our school system. If the federal government wants to support an initiative that will have a positive and sustained influence on students being prepared for post high school learning and work they can look to us for guidance. They could support us with funding to create a Classroom 10 certification program where we could support teachers over time to develop the knowledge and skills to create and implement Classroom 10 learning environments. Something like the national certification program only more closely aligned with our system beliefs that would include the salary enhancement upon completion. Now that would be something to get excited about.

It will be interesting to watch this unfold. If New York and California are precluded from even applying because of their laws will there be political pressure placed on the department to change parameters? Thus far, it looks like no, this administrations has its mind made up. Who will get all this money? It looks to me like many states will not meet the requirements and end up with applications that Duncan deems a moon shot. Where will Washington end up in this race?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Our state's proposal - a chance?

I don't know if you have been following the Race to the Top federal grants process, but it is big news and has the promise to bring millions of dollars into our state and local school districts. Our district is involved in at least two collaborative efforts, one with PEI and one with SOL to secure funding to support our curriculum development and Classroom 10 goals. Here is a Washington Post article from last Friday providing information about the goals of the program.

It is a short article by Secretary Duncan with these words about the goals.

The Race to the Top program marks a new federal partnership in education reform with states, districts and unions to accelerate change and boost achievement. Yet the program is also a competition through which states can increase or decrease their odds of winning federal support. For example, states that limit alternative routes to certification for teachers and principals, or cap the number of charter schools, will be at a competitive disadvantage. And states that explicitly prohibit linking data on achievement or student growth to principal and teacher evaluations will be ineligible for reform dollars until they change their laws.

Once again we see the agenda; promoting charter schools and linking student achievement directly to teacher and, somewhat new, principal evaluation. The first round will be for state proposals. There will be another round for districts or collaborative efforts, but as this short paragraph shows the focus is on much of what we heard from this administration during the campaign and to date; charters and achievement data driving evaluations. I wonder how far our state will get demonstrating alignment with these goals? I can't see WEA jumping on board a proposal with these as major components, do you?

In this Seattle Times article the President shares four goals for this $5 billion.

Broadly speaking, the president wants states to do four things he considers to be reforms - toughen academic standards, find better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, track student performance and have a plan of action to turn around failing schools.

Toughen academic standards can be reworded to mean adopt the new "voluntary" national standards. Track student performance can be reworded to link student achievement to teacher evaluation. Having a plan of action can be reworded to mean do what the charter schools are doing, in other words just look to the KIPP schools for guidance. Our Governor says she is aligned with the federal goals and committed to competing for these grants. I can't find the article, but I read in the Times that our state might not make the timeline for the first round of grants. Think it may have something to do with the major players agreeing on goals?

One last picture from New York, this one with our hosts, Peter Senge and Jamie Cloud. The other three ladies are from our state's delegation.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Draft standards released . . .

A lot has been happening on the voluntary national standards front. I think this is potentially a big deal for us. We have aligned our work with state standards and we are embedding Classroom 10 learning into our units with a focus on our Outcomes and Indicators, habits of mind, and thinking skills. I am concerned what a potential new set of standards will do to this work and the capacity for us to once again adjust to new learning outcomes. We have done this already many times with the multiple revisions to or state standards.

On this post from the Core Knowledge blog there is a link to a draft of the proposed standards. I have not yet reviewed them and will not have the opportunity for at least another week as I prepare for our Board and Administrator retreats that start next Friday. Here are also two other posts from the same blog that continue the debate. They are here and here. The draft standards were officially released today.

I would be interested in your thinking about this possibility now that you can see the draft. As a teacher, how would you respond to a national set of standards in reading and mathematics? As an administrator, what do you see as the positive and negative possibilities of this potential requirement?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Guest Blog - a student perspective on the sustainability/systems thinking conference

What follows is Cort Hammond sharing his thoughts about the conference and what he learned. Cort is the President of the high school's Environmental Club. The idea behind the design comes from Mr. Tucker.

Five Days of Learning

My passion is for the environment. Last school year, I started the Green Team at Tahoma Senior High; we worked to improve on the small recycling program at our school. 20 of my peers shared my goal. With that support, we managed to get recycling bins in every classroom by mid fall of 2008. By late winter of 2009 we were also collecting bottle caps which have to be recycled separately. My principal, Mr. Duty, called me to his office one day and asked me if I wanted to go to New York for the Society for Organizational Learning (SOL) conference. The realization of just how amazing this opportunity was only set in once I got home. The next day, I returned to Mr. Duty’s office and affirmed how eager and glad I was to participate.

On July 12th, we got up at 4:30, went to the airport and 5 hours later we landed at JFK airport; though tired, all of us were in good spirits. Mr. Duty joked about how he got things free in Duty Free shops and Mr. Tucker was quick to say Duty Free is what he calls his summers. We all chuckled and were happy that the teachers were so laid back. On arrival at the Garrison Institute, I was already awed by the beauty of the landscape and of the building. Even at this point, we were not sure exactly what we would be doing at the SOL Conference; we knew that the subject was sustainability and had prepared by reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded and The Necessary Revolution. While I did not enjoy the two books as much as a good novel, they were fascinating. The success stories that I learned about were an inspiration. Furthermore, I learned about systems thinking, an idea that was central to the conference. We walked in the door and went through the registration process. We walked down creaky hallways and opened our old fashioned door latch. The antiquated feel of the whole building was cool. We went to dinner and enjoyed the vegetarian meal of leak and potato soup. We didn’t meet anyone new as we were still getting to know each other. That evening we went on a walk through the forest surrounding the old monastery.

The next day, we got our first look at all of the students and teachers that had come together from across the U.S. We were introduced to Peter Senge, Jamie Cloud, and the numerous other individuals who made the conference possible. I thought it was pretty neat to be part of the first meeting of this kind (students and teachers). We got together and began the first timid and then interesting process of getting to know people from other sites and learning a little about them. That day we were introduced to systems thinking through a simplified simulation of supply and demand. In the simulation, there were four roles: the factory, the distributer, the wholesaler, and the retailer. Each stage of manufacture could not communicate with the others; it had to order whatever number of goods it thought appropriate according to demand. Even though demand stayed relatively constant, production shot up to climb out of a backlog (when orders exceeded inventory). Then suddenly there was no more demand as the massive surplus reached the consumer; everyone was left with a massive inventory. This demonstrated a system where none of the roles could work individually and still emerge successful. This was because the decision to order more to avoid a backlog caused the next stage in production to order even more. The result was sudden overproduction. I thought this game was quite fun to play and showed how the seemingly simple task of forwarding goods along the line to the consumer was more complex and how each stage of any system is influenced by the other. The analogy of an iceberg was particularly effective. The tip of the iceberg stands for the events (incurring a backlog). Then beneath the water, the complexities and connections of the system exist (the lack of communication and runaway production). This whole precept reminded me to try to look at every part of our school and beyond the school to have the greatest impact possible. After this, we had the opportunity of sharing our goals and visions. I was intrigued to hear about the environmental activities of other schools. One school had started a reusable bag program and another had installed a wind turbine. This whole part was exciting, because we were finally talking about specific actions. We concluded with a reflective exercise about our vision. That night for dinner I enjoyed a delicious tofu wrap.

The following day we formed learning circles. I had an excellent group that was full of experience, ideas and diverse backgrounds. Since my focus was on the environment, I was sure to ask all of my group members what their schools were doing that was environmentally oriented. One girl, Michelle, replied that they had nothing, and a teacher described their plastic bag reduction program. She told how their school had bought and sold reusable bags and encouraged students to stop using plastic bags. I was impressed with their program and it certainly reminded me of the first goal of environmentalism: to reduce. After that, we reconvened and talked about reinforcing loops. The most fascinating thing for me was Mr. Senge’s explanation of how the world is like a bath tub where the rate of
water flowing in is greater than the rate of water draining out. The rate at which Carbon Dioxide is put into the air is 8 billion tons per year, while the rate at which the earth absorbs CO2 is only 3 billion tons per year. Or bathtub is filling up and the longer the tap runs the hotter the water gets. This is the perfect explanation for why simply stopping to emit any more CO2 than at the present level is not sufficient. Global Weirding (a term for climate change) is happening and this is why. At lunch, we talked with Mr. Senge to see what ideas he had for the Environmental Club and the Global Academy class. He offered to connect us with Starbucks or Costco to work with them on sustainability projects and suggested that we work with Puget Sound Energy and local corporations. I was glad to hear his advice; next year, I hope we can write letters to local and state-wide businesses, asking for cooperation. An excellent place to start could be with our local Safeway, with the aim of reducing plastic bag consumption. Also, there are plans to build a Fred Meyers next to a Safeway; it would be nice if it was LEED certified. Inspired by our discussion with Mr. Senge, I added to my action plan for next year’s Green Team (for action plan, see below). That afternoon we went into the city. This experience was just as educational; never in my life have I seen such a spectacle of waste, consumerism, and excess as in Times Square. One billboard touted its “green” solar panels, but this one billboard was cancelled out by the hundreds of others around it that were constantly running. This sickening sight is the type of thing that drives me to do what I can to help the environment. I also wondered why there was so much traffic when subways, bus routes, and train tracks crisscrossed the city; we certainly had no problem with transport. We ended the evening with a look at the UN headquarters, a powerful symbol of potential international cooperation; even at night.

On Wednesday, we started off by talking about the progress in our learning circles. Then we departed by bus to Stone Barns Farm. This is an agricultural project that focuses on being as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible. One point of learning for me was how the farmers rotated the sheep and fowl to ensure that the pasture remained fertile and the soil was not depleted. Also, we were shown how clover was allowed to grow among the crops to provide nitrogen for the soil. In addition, they had an extensive composting system that was interesting to learn about since we hope to implement composting in our school. We went into the city again and returned to Times Square to observe more rampant consumerism in stores like the M&Ms Factory. Does society really need M&M erasers, pencils, and a thousand other collectables? We also got to see ground zero and, for the first time, I actually had a sense of the devastation and I felt my connection grow outside of simply being an American.

On Thursday, we discussed the previous day in our learning circles and had the opportunity to hear more about the other two fieldtrips. Those who went to the school of St. Augustine were introduced to the sustainability issues that the school is facing, including the need to preserve their aging building. They had bee hives on the property which provided honey for the school. The other destination was Fieldston School where they have a green roof that is composed of a garden and scientific tools. One of the teachers from St. Louis said that their roof was long overdue for a replacement and that they would like to build a green roof. It would be neat if we could have a green roof as well; however, it might be more practical to focus on renewable energy at our school. For dinner we were surprised to find meat on the menu and most people were overjoyed and acted like salvation had come at last.

On our last day, Friday the 17th, I ate several delicious blueberry scones for breakfast. Then we met in our learning circles one last time to reflect on the past week. I was most excited about the closing meeting among us Washingtonians. We took turns sharing our visions of how Tahoma needs to change. We talked about how the Environmental Club always needs to revisit why they’re passionate about their cause. For me, this is something important to be reminded of because I had gotten too wrapped up in my list of proposed actions. Still, I made sure to talk about the proposed action plan for this summer and emphasize the importance of Mr. Tucker’s (one of my teachers) idea that when school begins this fall, there should be visible change. These visible changes include recycle bins for the lunchroom and hallways, composting, a meter of the schools energy consumption and posters with the Blue and Gold make Green logo. Before we knew it, we were on our way to the airport and about 8 or 9 hours later we landed in Seattle. To save fuel, I carpooled with Mr. Duty and Mr. Tucker to share with my family the five days of learning and fun. My younger brother, Conor, typed out the last two paragraphs by dictation since I was sick.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New learning and continued amazement . . .

Cort, one of the students will be guest blogging this week about his experience in New York. Unfortunately, he became ill on our return so it will be awhile before we hear from him. I am eager to hear what he has to say because he is one of the critical leaders in the Environmental Club at the high school and his energy and commitment will be necessary as we move into the future.

On Thursday and Friday we had some time as a team to begin thinking about how to move this work into the future. The Global Academy team is committed to a focus on sustainability and to embedding the skills of system thinking into the units that they develop. Clare and Matt have also agreed to be advisors for the club. Terry will also play an important role and shared ideas that he believes can become a part of the school and the community. We have started the discussion to establish goals and have agreed to meeting at least quarterly to monitor our progress and to maintain focus and energy.

As I shared earlier, the Global Academy team had an opportunity to begin planning with Peter. They will be reading parts of his book, The Necessary Revolution and he has agreed to meet with them electronically over the year. There will not be any other high school students in the world with the opportunity this year to learn from one of the leading world experts on system thinking and sustainability business practices.

For me it was a learning and rewarding week. I learned much more about what a comprehensive sustainability curriculum must include. We have started this work aligned with our state’s standards so it will be interesting to see how what I have learned compares to the state’s guidelines and our implementation of these guidelines. I also for the first time have a better understanding of how system thinking can be embedded into our existing work and some guidance from the work done by the Cloud Institute over time. I learned a lot, but left knowing there is much more to learn.

I also have an e-mail from Peter wanting to connect on future planning for the SOL Education Partnership and the work we are doing. It always amazes me when he takes the time to share his thinking and actually asks for our thoughts and support. He will be out of the country next week working with government and business representatives on world sustainability issues. This work, after he volunteered to work a week with students and staff from public and private schools in our country to promote the need for and support changes that influence our work and the role of students in this work. Who would have thought that Tahoma would become an important part of this work?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gardens on a roof?

We visited the city last night and got back too late for an old man like me to blog so I’ll share a little before I go to this morning’s session. Terry and I started the day with a visit to a middle school in the Bronx, Fieldston School, with two roof top gardens and the others visited a sustainable farm, Stone Barns.

I have read about, but never seen a roof top garden until this visit. I learned a great deal about them as well as the potential for them to have a significant impact on New York’s sewage runoff problem if it were to become a common practice. At Fieldston, one of the roofs is not accessible to students for safety reasons and is the site for a study through Columbia University to learn about the properties of these gardens and to monitor data over time. The second garden is also the site for a Columbia study focused on multiple ground covers and is available to students and teachers for learning. A research assistant and teachers shared with us their work and how they use the roof in their sustainability curriculum.

What was very interesting for me was not only the information about the purpose for these roofs and the potential that they have to influence the atmosphere of New York City, but also the controversy that surrounds them. Though there is still little data over time, there is initial data that demonstrates the capacity of these roofs to influence runoff and building temperature that should promote their use. Here, however, the mayor does not support them as a viable alternative. He and staff instead are promoting white roof cover. This, I believe, is symptomatic of what the sustainability movement must confront. Many are skeptical seeing it as the new “hippie” thing to do. Time will tell if the “science” of this initiative to focus on our earth can overcome the skepticism that many have about the need and the possible solutions. At some time it will become a topic of discussion in our community.

The visit to the city was my first and was wonderful. There is so much to see and we had so little time to see it in. The kids were great; wanting to make sure that I saw Times Square and leading me to all the right subways. We only had one minor glitch when we took an express that went beyond our destination. Michael got us right back on track. We had a great dinner at of all places, a Chinese restaurant. It looked a little different than China, but the food was great and the company couldn’t have been better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A rewarding day . . .

This is our meeting room.

Today was one of those days I can only dream of. Our kids, teachers, and principal spent the entire lunch break at the table with Peter sharing ideas and exploring ways that he will support the work of the Global Academy next year. I don’t know if they realize or appreciate the fact that he works with leaders from around the world who would like to have this kind of access to his experience and expertise. As an example, in May he was in China with leaders from there and the US trying to identify ways for our two countries to collaborate on the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. They were successful and Peter shared this site where the protocols they used are open to all of us. The only problem was a lack of space at the table so I had to make sure that the important people could be involved in the conversation by moving to another table.

All of our team our visiting New York city at this time except again for me. I couldn’t leave because I had committed to meeting with district leaders to explore the future of this organization and to identify from our personal visions what might begin to emerge as a shared vision. It is exciting for me because I don’t often network outside our district let alone outside the state and I have not had this type of opportunity to engage in the creation of a national initiative. Our teachers and students are making connections that will support their work next year and that will influence the culture of our schools and community. I am being energized by the conversations with students and adults around topics of importance to me.

I have asked one of the students to guest blog about his experience thus far that I will post tomorrow or the next day.

P.S. More good news. I received a response from the high school in China wanting to begin collaborating with our school.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The youth influence on our learning . . .

Though some of the activities were the same, day 1 was certainly different than last year. Having about half of the people in the room be youth creates a much different learning environment. When Peter asks for volunteers there is no wait time as at least one or two of the young people will immediately raise their hands. In small group discussions they sometimes need to be invited into the conversation, but they always promote thought and reflection with their insights. They can be more direct and use none of the jargon that comes with our normal work related conversations.

We had a small amount of time with our team this morning to begin thinking about what we want to focus on and how we want to engage our system and our community as it relates to sustainability. It did not take long for me to see that our four students are committed and excited about the opportunity to learn and to identify vehicles that promote understanding of the need for sustainable living and projects that change behavior in our schools and community. I am looking forward to these team opportunities as the week continues.

I was worried about vegetarian for no reason. I am eating more than normal, not necessarily a good idea, and liking it. Lunch was spaghetti with mushroom sauce, chick pea salad, and a beet and kale dish that I went back for more of. Dinner was a rice dish, zucchini, and a bean and cheese burrito with tofu and a wonderful guacamole. I am not swearing off on meat, but I will lose no weight this week.

The big topic of discussion is planning for a trip into New York city since none of us has had the opportunity. We learned that a train runs from here that will take us to Grand Central Station and back so we know it is possible. It will be fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A new learning opportunity . . .

I am in New York with a team from our high school and representatives from PEI and E3Washington for a conference developed by SOL and Peter Senge. The focus of the conference is on sustainability and systems thinking. I was able to attend last year and am excited that we are able to bring our high school principal, Terry Duty, two teachers developing a new tenth grade integrated program Matt Tucker and Clare Nance, and four students, Amy Althauser, Michael Miller, Cort Hammond, and Jordyn Sifferman. These young people will be engaging with other students from across the country, forming partnerships, and guiding the adults in looking at ways to have a positive influence on our communities and our world.

We are staying at the Garrison Institute, an old monastery about an hour outside of New York City. In line with the theme of the conference it is strictly vegetarian and the facility has maintained the meditation rooms. It is certainly a place to get away with no TV, radio, vending machines, or places close by to shop for a diet coke. The rooms are small with communal bathrooms/showers, but there is a hot tub on our floor in the men’s room.

It is about 9:20 pm here and I am in the 3rd floor lounge where they have wireless access. Outside the window there are fire flies doing their thing. I have seen them before, but not in these numbers (I think it was last year in Vermont) and spread out like this. Over the next few days I will share our learning and experiences as we are guided by Peter, SOL representatives, and representatives from the Cloud Institute.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Last thoughts on my China trip . . .

One last post on China, though I am putting together some photos that I will be asking Christine for help in getting on the blog at a later time. Nothing big, just some random thoughts and a few photos.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but being invited to and having a banquet in our honor at the Hall of the People was a BIG deal. When one of the speakers, a high ranking official in the education department was near tears as he addressed us from the stage it started to sink in, but it wasn’t until later in sharing with our guide that we realized the significance of the event. The speaker had never been in the building for an event and could not believe that he was on the stage addressing us.

The Great Wall was truly impressive. Seeing it from the air showed its expanse, but being on it and seeing it up close was an experience I won’t soon forget. I was happy that I made it to the top though I felt it the next day with stiff and painful legs. In fact, on the way down my legs were actually shaking at times.

Everywhere we went in Beijing there were people selling things and many in our group were impressed with variety of shopping opportunities. Jewelry, especially pearls was high on everyone’s list. Shopping ranged from high end boutiques to shops stuck in corners. Because we were on a tourist bus, we were targeted by street hawkers on many occasions. It was a different experience for me as shopping has never been high on my list of things to do.

Beijing is a huge city unlike any I have seen in our country. It has an area of 16,800 square meters that spreads over 16 districts and 2 counties. From the top floor of our hotel in every direction all you see are buildings, a mix of old, new, and under construction. Though there are tall buildings, I didn’t see what we call skyscrapers. The tallest seemed to be in the twenty story range. Eighteen million people live in this city with four million labeled by our guide as flowing in and out. That means that there is migration in and out of four million people from the provinces seeking better lives. Many, however, discover that the menial jobs they find are not better than their previous live so they return to the provinces only to be replaced by others seeking a better existence. As I watched those cleaning the streets I can understand why this migration would take place.

In Beijing there are six million cars, none appearing to be older than five years. The government buys the older cars. The only older vehicles are minivans. The most popular models include Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda, Buick, Audi, and BMW. Though they continue to only allow driving every other day based on license plate numbers, it doesn’t stop traffic jams. I would be remiss if I didn’t share what appeared to be the most popular form of transportation, bicycles and scooters. They were everywhere as was the vast public bus and subway system.

My understanding of China’s need for new power sources and search for cheap and efficient fuel was reinforced. I saw new coal fired power plants in development and use as well as wind farms, solar panels on street lights, and other roof top energy devices both in the city and in the province. I fear that if we don’t create a sense of urgency in our country around the need for discovering and creating new sources of cheap and efficient energy the Chinese and European nations will. In the future those countries that move in this direction will be better positioned for success than are those dependent on fossil fuels.

There were guards in uniforms everywhere we went, on street corners, in shopping areas, at tourist attractions, in the streets, and on the roads. The uniforms were slightly different and I don’t know what each signified, but they were similar right down to the hat. They were usually young, perhaps in their twenties, though some appeared younger, and they rarely spoke to or acknowledged us. They were not armed, they were just present. I believe this presence has an influence on what people say and do in public.

I’ll close with one last piece of information on the public schools. Formal schooling in the primary school starts at age seven. All children, however, go to preschool for two years where they learn to read making the starting age of seven a little misleading.

I have had fun sharing my experiences in these last few posts and hope that they have provided you with some information and a feeling for travel in China.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The old mixed into the new . . .

I have much more I could share, but I think I’ll share tonight my experiences in Jianjing (I think this is the name) the place we moved to from the government hotel in Zhangjiakou. On the next post I’ll share a little more about Beijing and my last thoughts.

Life in the province was significantly different than what we saw in Beijing. Zhangjiakou was an established city with some signs of growth, but nowhere near the pace of change in Jianjing. This was a city in complete transformation. Old buildings were being torn down and replaced by new high rises, hotels, and a new business section. In every direction there are multiple cranes visible, more than I have seen in any one place in my life. It is an example of the new China with the roads and power being provided by the government and the private sector financing the new construction. I am told that China recently achieved the distinction of having the second most millionaires per capita after our country. Observing the changes here and in Beijing I can see where some of these millionaires are making their money.

Along with the change there is still the old. Every morning outside my window starting at about 6:00 am hundreds of people came to the town square for morning exercise. The activities included the traditional martial arts, badminton mostly without nets, ballroom dancing, a marching band, hacky sack, and plenty of swords. What was interesting was the age of the participants. There were very few youth even on a non school day with most participants I would say being 30 and older. When I asked some of the kids about this they said their parents participate, but they are too busy and get their exercise in school. It will be interesting to see if this tradition prevails with the many changes currently planned and in place.

Every morning there is also the market that is a very busy place. Though not large, it had a wide variety of fruits and vegetables with some fish. There are also multiple places to buy prepared food including pastry like items, stir fry, and noodles. During market and exercise was the only time that I saw garbage on the street. Before seeing this I thought the people were throwing it away though there are very few garbage cans visible. They don’t, the streets are physically swept by people and then the garbage is picked up by push cart. It was amazing how clean the cities were including Beijing.

I’ll also share a picture of the hotel’s lobby where people smoke freely. It truly is a beautiful place with mahogany paneling throughout. Though new with modern conveniences I did notice two things. The finish work is not to the same standard that we have. This was most visible in molding, the grout work, and the uneven closet doors. This may have been just my room and also because we were the first to use these rooms. The second observation was here and also in Beijing. The standard of cleaning is also not what we see in our country. The room was cleaned, but not as thoroughly as we are used to. I share these because I think it shows some of the differences in our cultures, not to be negative. This was a wonderful place and the people were most gracious and warm. They went out of their way to make us feel like royalty.

I’ll share one last picture. This is a man that I observed from my room at 6:00 am. He is shoveling sand into a cart and then emptying it over a screen to remove the rocks. He then takes the sand over to the cement mixer that I did not see operating. What was most interesting is that he was still doing this when I returned to the room after 6:00 pm and also on the next day.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Seeking learning partners . . .

The meeting with principals and English teachers after the school visits was informative and gave me an opportunity to pursue a relationship with a Chinese school and one or more of our schools. It was an opportunity to share in more detail the packet we produced with two principals and one vice principal.

As always there were a number of people in the room not from an individual school who represented the Bureau of Education in Zhangjiakou City and others from the Hebei Province Educational Department. They were with us at all times preceding the bus with multiple black cars with flashers on and directing school staff on what to do. What changed at this meeting was a directive to us to speak openly and to the Chinese school staff to also speak openly and ask any questions that they wished. From my conversations I believe that at least some of the principals or headmasters took this to heart and the tone of the conversations changed from polite to inquisitive with a focus on instructional practice. I left that meeting feeling good about the potential to establish a relationship with primary and middle schools.

Before I share some thoughts about the conversations at each level I want to share how hard it was for the Chinese to understand what a superintendent is and does. They continually wanted to know who the principals were in our group because they perceived this as the most important person to speak with. I can’t dispute this, but we had no principals in our group. We had superintendents, teachers, and other central office staff who seemed to not command the same respect as what would be given a principal. It was only after we found a way to show the place of a superintendent that this changed. Interestingly, it was not an organizational chart that created this change, it was by describing the superintendent job as the boss of the principals and that there were many principals that reported to one boss.

Elementary School: I met with the Headmaster and English Director of Dongfeng Primary School who were interested in our packet and the potential to establish a relationship with one of our schools. I believe that there is a good chance that we will be able to connect with them. In addition there was interest expressed for collaboration to establish video exchanges from the Headmaster of XiaDongYing Primary School. This came from her after hearing about our packet from another school. This too, could become a partner of one of our elementary schools.

Middle School: My conversation with the President of No. Seven Middle School of Zhangjiakou City was the most informative. He was open in telling me that the decisions to visit what rooms were based on impressing us and not in his control. He shared that the lessons were not what you would see if you dropped in and could go where you wished. He asked questions and wanted straight feedback from us, not what we would say to make him feel good. I was impressed with this young man and believe that he will follow-up on any request for collaboration in the future.

High School: As I shared in an earlier post I was able to visit Zhangjiakou No. 1 Senior Middle School where I started a conversation with the vice principal and an English teacher. I found their website (in Chinese) if you would like to visit. The vice principal seemed very interested and actually spent much time with me later at dinner. I don’t know, however, that I feel as good about this school as I did the middle school. Not having an opportunity to speak at length with the principal I fear may be a problem because of the anxiety I observed earlier in trying to share our information packet without the “responsible” person being present. We will, however, pursue this relationship.

There will be considerable hurdles to climb for any relationship to sustain over time. Those include the 15 hour time difference, language issues, technology, and finding the focus for the collaboration that will result in each party seeing this not as another thing to do, but as an important component of their educational program. Access will also be a problem in our elementary schools and in the Chinese schools because the main point of access is in a computer lab. We are beginning to address this in our elementary schools, but I know of no plan in the short term to increase access in the potential partner schools.

If you controlled the content of the collaboration, what would you want the students and adults to focus on so that it becomes something that all can’t wait to take place each day and not something that must happen because the superintendent and principal decide that it is important?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The need for creativity . . .

I am finally home and it feels great. I will share more of my China experience in the next few days.

On the visit to the No. 1 Zhangjiakou Senior Middle School (no web page) I was asked if I thought the students were being creative on multiple occasions. They are very focused on trying to make the shift from simply learning and acquiring information to being able to apply that information in creative ways to solve problems and create new products and ways of living. They realize that for all the recognition they get for high test scores, those scores are not resulting in increasing the number of patents that are issued annually. They are learning that this shift is not easy.

I honestly don’t have enough information to know if they are making strides in this area. As with the primary school, the visit was very structured and limited. The No. 1 high school is just that. For the first time here and in other places in China, they take the students scoring highest on the middle school tests and place them in a boarding high school for three years with the best rated teachers. Yes, teachers as well as students are rated. In our country there is a reverse trend with an intentional attempt to attract “better” teachers to work in inner city schools that have some of the greatest needs. Of course, in our country there is also no process for rating teachers.

No. 1 High School has 4000 of Hebei’s gifted students in three grades. It is a boarding school with even those that live in the city spending six nights a week at the school. The purpose of the school is to prepare these students for university where most aspire to qualify for Peking University, the most prestigious school in China. The school has a new section with one grade level and an older section housing the upper two grades. We visited the new section.

Classes range in size from 40 to sixty students in hot and humid classrooms. Unfortunately, we only saw two classrooms so I know very little about what it really looks and sounds like in their schools. The hallways were huge, yet I didn’t see one student in them during my visit. The students go to school for about four hours in the morning, have a two hour lunch/nap break, and then another afternoon session. They use continuous placement with the teachers staying with the same students for their three high school years. The students also stay in a room and the teachers move from classroom to classroom.

From a student I sat with on our return to Beijing it was verified by her that they study until about 11:00 pm every evening. Her parents are both teachers at her school and she feels great pressure to achieve at a high level so that she can achieve her goals and please her parents. Her aspiration is to become a translator and she believes that this requires four years of university work. I actually learned more from her about the school than I did on the visit. As an aside, she really likes McDonald's strawberry shakes and French fries, but her parents thought she was gaining too much weight so they made her stop going. She was very thin by our standards.

At the school we were greeted with students doing their daily “exercise” session. Since the building is new and the track area is not complete (I forgot to include at the primary school they have a synthetic track) they all trotted around the school in groups for about fifteen minutes. They did this in formations and with chants to keep them in step. It was not to military precision, but it was impressive. They do this every day regardless of the weather. On this day I was sweating just watching and they return to class directly from the activity.

We then were given a short concert by this grade’s choir. They are an award winning group and it was easy to see why. They were wonderful. They are also among the best in the province. What was different than in our schools was the inclusion of three teachers in the performance. They each sang long solo parts. The performance was followed by an English class that took the rest of the time before closure with food and conversation with the principal and the English teachers.

The English class was similar to what I described in the primary school visit except that the lesson had a group work component. Only English was used during the entire lesson for these students who were in their sixth year of learning English. Textbooks are used and in this lesson one of the goals was for the students to create a theme park. The teacher gave them ten minutes to work in groups to create their park before each group would meet with us and then present their park to the class.

When we met with a group it was clear that they had already spent time as the park had been designed. We were shown the design and asked to assist them in naming the park. The group included ten students. In the conversation with us, three students engaged at a high level. The others could not follow the conversation if it deviated from the theme and the vocabulary words used in the lesson. Our questions would be repeated by a peer in Chinese and even then they had difficulty contributing. The groups presented their park using the Elmo to show their drawings. Again, two to three students did the talking for the group, no questions were taken.

A couple of the groups showed creativity in the theme they picked to design their park, but the layouts were similar and consisted of rides, toilets, and restaurants. I also think that the structure of the lesson provided considerable guidance and parameters within which the designs were created. I answered the creativity questions with diplomacy, but not with the same positive language used by some of my colleagues. It was clear that our hosts wanted positive affirmation that the kids were being creative.

I would have preferred the opportunity to visit more classrooms to see how other core content areas are taught and to watch the interaction between teachers and students. It was obvious that these English lessons were staged for show. This was confirmed for me the next day through a middle school principal. With ours being the first school visit by any delegation to Zhangjiakou they wanted to impress us and to have us leave feeling positive about our experience with them. Since they are very open about these being the best and brightest students and the best teachers it could have been much more informative. The closing conversations with the principal and English teachers were actually the best part of each visit.

In the English class I kept asking myself what it would be like in our schools with students in their sixth or seventh year of Chinese. Though I have no experience or context for comparison, I believe that more students would be able to actively engage than was my experience in these classrooms. I base this on just a few observations in third year Spanish classes over time. Would this be because our program is elective and theirs is required? I don’t have the answer, but believe that this would be a part of the difference. With 250 million Chinese youth taking English lessons even if only 20% end up being literate that puts 50 million young and very competent Chinese youth in the world ready and eager to influence the stature and position of their country. It is certainly something to think about. Will knowing our language and our culture place them in an advantageous position? If we can duplicate this on the same level will it influence our ability to work collaboratively with them?

So many questions with perhaps the most important being; should we be looking at establishing a Chinese language program in our schools? Your thoughts?